I Was Orphan Number 27: Ballerina Michaela DePrince’s Inspiring Story
Her career seems almost fated: Outside her orphanage one day, the wind had literally blown a magazine onto her face; the cover showed a ballerina en pointe. “The dancer looked beautiful and happy—that’s what caught my eye,” Michaela remembers. “I wanted to be happy.” And when she met her new mother, Elaine DePrince, that tattered photo was the first thing she handed her.
The DePrinces brought Michaela to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to raise her as one of their 11 children (nine of whom are adopted) and quickly put her in dance class. “There was so much love right away,” says Michaela. “I had never been surrounded by something like that.” It wasn’t long before she knew she couldn’t live without ballet, even as she was reminded she didn’t fit the dancer stereotype. Her mother spent hours dyeing Michaela’s pale costumes and pointe shoes to match her darker skin, and the young dancer was told she wasn’t right for various roles because her body was too athletic. “I put up a front that I was fine with being the only black girl or not getting a role,” she says. “But it was very difficult.”
By age 14 she starred in a documentary, First Position, as she competed for—and won—a prestigious scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre in New York; today, at 20, she’s a member of the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam and hopes to be a role model for young people, not just through dance but also by working with the Girl Scouts and War Child, a group that helps children in conflict zones. Her ultimate dream is to open a school in Sierra Leone.
“Sometimes you just need to make a little ripple to open the doors for others,” she says. “I still find it amazing how that magazine cover came at the perfect time, just as I was almost losing hope.” Last year she actually found the dancer in that photo, Magali Messac, a French prima ballerina who has since retired; the two hope to meet this summer. “Michaela’s story—the magic of it, but equally the hard work and belief in her dream—is remarkable,” says Messac. “She will inspire other young girls to dream high and believe in themselves.”
“Michaela’s story is astonishing, but it’s her talent and perseverance that will make
her a star.”
—Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem